Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nuto Revell, on the Davai Road Again

In La strada del davai (Einaudi, 1966), Nuto Revelli, himself a veteran of the retreat from the Don in January 1943, speaks to more than two dozen former Italian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. These PoWs were held in the Soviet Union until after the end of the war and thus did not experience the partisan warfare, following Marshal Badoglio's September 8, 1943, radio announcement of Italy's surrender to the Allies, of northern and central Italy. The partisans, of course, were held up as heroes after the war. The survivors of captivity in Russia were all but forgotten.

As Revelli notes in his preface to the book, it is the raw fury of one of these forgotten men, the madman "Mauthausen," that prompts his realization that the war has not left his blood, that he, a former officer, has a debt to pay to the men who did not return from Russia and to those who returned broken.
Contrada Mondovì in Cuneo, Italy--Photo: G. F. Fanti
It was “Mauthausen”—a poor madman I met by chance—who stirred up this tangle of resentments of mine, of repressed rage, of fanciful meditations, of disappointments, of defeats. “Mauthausen,” in telling me of his war, spoke a true language, intact, not worn out by time. His memories of the war were my memories of the war. But less filtered, less reworked, sparer, more authentic. “Mauthausen” was a madman, one of the many wrecks of war discharged only in appearance. But war is madness, and every one of “Mauthausen’s” curses, every one of his shouts, was a sacrosanct truth. As “Mauthausen” hurled oaths I relived my nights in the open, I experienced the forty degrees below zero again, the collective madness, the crying colonels, the obsessive shout “fire… fire,” the abandoned wounded, the gangrene, the snow, so much snow and so many dead. It was the complete chapter of the retreat from Russia reemerging from my poorly healed wounds. Listening to “Mauthausen,” I realized my war was still in my blood, like a cancer; I realized I had a large debt to pay.

I sought a dialogue; I approached my first witness, Mattio, along the mule tracks that connect the stunted Bosco dell’Impero and the ancient world of Tetto Giordano and Tetto Cannone upstream from Roccasparvera. Then, still in the area of the Bosco dell’Impero I met Renaldi, a wise and self-assured farmer from Vignolo. Renaldi was raking leaves… Renaldo and I talked about this and that, about his people, about the poverty of the mountains. I spoke about the Second World War and about the dangers of a third world war. We’re all generals! The army is the only branch of the state that the citizen gets to know through and through. The soldiers of my generation know a lot about it. After eight or ten years of military life, after years of war, they still remember everything about the army. They speak, in almost technical language, about weapons, tactics, maneuvers, organization, and disorganization. They speak above all about defeats, about retreats! Renaldi agreed to arrange meetings for me with some of the Russia veterans around Vignolo. Antonio Nova, Giuseppe Giraudo, Dalmazzo Giraudo, Andrea Serale… They were almost clandestine meetings, in houses, in barns. I wanted my witnesses to speak as free men, in a peaceful environment, in an environment far from that of the claims staked by the usual combat, confessional, and political imperatives. 

There were bounds—the retreat and captivity in Russia—to my particular interest. Recording was impossible; it intimidated the witnesses. The best thing was to take shorthand. To prepare the witnesses, I had asked them to tell me everything from the start, from their first day of military life. The first part of the stories would be a warm up, talk I wouldn’t use. 

With total rigor, as if I were gathering evidence, I wrote everything down, noting even the emotions of my interlocutors, their long silences, their fits of weeping, their moments of abandon. But soon enough I realized the whole stories of the witnesses fascinated me, not just the war in Russia.

The bibliography on the Second World War includes hundreds of diaries, stories, and memoirs. But, as always, it’s the so-called men of letters who have written for the humble, for the unlettered. Our generals have written dozens of memoirs, often full of wretched belated accusations, often dry like the outlines of maneuvers in formation. Missing was the peasant’s war, the mountain dweller’s, the laborer’s, the poor tubercular, malarial, nephritic fellow’s, the never-ending war. My ultimate aim was but one: for the soldier finally to “write” his war, too.

With research devoid of set plans, entrusted to chance, to whatever turned up, I thought I could get a large enough sample of experiences.

“Mauthausen” curses the war, the country, everything. He doesn’t talk; he shouts. “How many gold medals does the Julia have?” he shouts. “Tell me how many gold medals the Julia has.” He shouts and cries. “They say I’m crazy. Was I crazy when I went off to be a soldier? If I was crazy why did they say I was fit?”

“He’s a pain in the ass,” the bien-pensants say of him, “he’s just acting crazy.”

Pinu d’ Rússia has war on the brain, too. He lives like a stray dog, telling his stories full of madness. After the war he was committed for two years to the asylum for the criminally insane in Aversa. The few people who still listen to him say: “He can thank Mussolini!”

Mattio is raking leaves; his hill is a wilderness, a mountain. His life is all here:

“Eighty months of military service, France, Albania, Russia. I started when I was twenty and finished when I was thirty. By the time I was six I was out of school; I was earning my bread: if you’re a jackass, you live like an ass. I carry everything on my back just like a beast of burden. But if you have some schooling you don’t work this way. A wretched life. There’s no water here, there’s no electricity, no roads. We’re godforsaken. When the tax bill comes we pay our pittance. In the summer, I take care of the land; in the other seasons I go down and do day labor here and there, but I can’t work out anything permanent. The old proverb is right: ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss.’ But I have no way out. A ciabot [small farm] on the plain would give me enough to live on, but I don’t have the guts to rent one. I’d like a steady job in a factory, but how to find one? I’m almost fifty, I have five mouths to feed, and it’s late.”

Marro works a small ciabot just outside Cuneo. He’s tired, sick, old, a specter in the raging economic miracle. “We’ve been forgotten,” he says to me, “not even a plaque in Passatore in memory of our eighteen dead. Let there not ever be any more wars. Even now I often dream and suffer: I dream I’m a prisoner of the Russians.”

Arlotto manages a gas station. He’s tired, sick with gloom. He has never told his story, not even to his father, who fought in the First World War.

Sasso left the countryside after ten years of working like a dog. He’s sick; his liver is killing him; he stands up by force of will. He helps his wife in a bar on the outskirts of town. “I would have liked to write my story,” he says to me, “the story of the stupid and horrible war. I’d like to write; I’d like to thank the people in Russia who helped me. But I keep putting it off…”

Beltramo is a farmer. He doesn’t have the strength to work the land. “I weighed eighty-three kilos when I left for the Eastern Front. In June 1944, in Siberia, I was down to forty-eight kilos. The camp doctors often weighed us; they said if we lost more than half our normal weight we wouldn’t survive. Today I barely manage to get up to sixty-six kilos, and I’m always tired, tired like an old man.”

Galaverna, a former laborer, caught TB in Russia. His house looks like an izba. He’s on a war pension.

Antonio Nova works for a contractor cutting and tying rebar. A life of poverty, picking up crumbs from the building boom. “I’m almost done for,” he says to me, “no strength, a wreck. With my children still young.”

Viale, once a farmer, runs a village tobacco shop. Like all the former prisoners from Russia, he’s sick, and it’s his first time talking, telling his story: “Our fathers never stopped talking about the First World War. Even now they talk about it with each other, they bring it up again, they tell stories. For me, for us, it’s completely different. I’ve never told anyone my story; you suffer again when you tell it. And whoever hasn’t gone through that experience can’t understand it, can’t believe it.”

Giuseppe Castellino, farmer, Western Front, Albania, captivity in Russia, has gone through intimidating amounts of agony and injustice. He’s more dead than alive, hollowed out by fevers and by struggles. But when he recalls the heroic Major Annoni he comes to life again, lights up. Castellino has the right to ten war pensions; he has his papers in order. But the bureaucracy for war pensions is a monster: no small number of the workings of our bureaucratic machine are worse than epidemic typhus. Twenty years later Castellino is still waiting, setting store by the “judges,” the “gurus from Rome.”

Giordano, a mountain dweller, lives in the Upper Grana Valley: “Our land is poor; we’re cut off from the world. I have small children and I don’t have the courage to go down to the plain. It’s just as well a lot of people were smart and ran off to the plain. The best-looking young man, if he wants to live in the mountains, won’t find anybody to marry. The girls go down to work and they get married there so they don’t have to come back to the mountains. In my village there’s a church, but it doesn’t have a priest.”

Giuseppe Giraudo, born in 1916, laborer, the Western Front, Albania, Russia, and a lot of wretchedness, had a “tired” heart and no war pension. He died in 1962.

Giovan Battista Dutto is a day laborer: in addition, he helps his wife work five acres of tenanted land. “I gave the country ten years,” he says to me. “I have four small children to raise. I need five kilos of bread a day. Because of my malaria, two or three times a year I shake like a leaf and my spleen gets this big, like two fists. I asked for a pension, but I never got anything. This morning I got the ballot for the next elections and I said to myself: ‘May God never send any more wars.’”
This is the world that inflames me and dismays me.
They knew nothing of fascism. In the easy days they weren’t members of the fascist youth: they lived free, far from the great national happenings. They didn’t even have the black shirt: at most, they could come up with a few set phrases, Mussolini’s miracles, and nothing else.

They became a mob on only one occasion, when, drafted, they went to “draw their number.” Then, like bands of rebels, they descended on the city with their accordions and clarinets. Under cover of the colors of the annual contingent everything was permitted. They sang, danced, drank. Shy as they were, they often went too far: young girls had to give them a wide berth. They sang the anti-militaristic songs of their elders. Their favorite refrain, “col vigliac d’la testa plà, l’ha fame abil a fé ’l suldà,” [That bald-headed coward declared me fit for service] they shouted twenty times, in anger, in defiance, even though they had asked to be Alpini. If you weren’t an Alpino, you were at best a reject.

All of them, the survivors of captivity in Russia, are exceptional men. It wasn’t just luck that helped them survive: they have antennae at their disposal; they have rare virtues.

Today, as they did before the great ordeal, they live on the margins of society, detached from the environment around them. They all bear a deep, hidden mark. They are sick, tired, old, falling to pieces. They all had the right to a pension, but the war pensions bureaucracy is an impassable wall: only the shrewd, the cunning, can get around it.

They tell their stories and they suffer. It’s the first time they tell all or almost all. As they talk they yield; they weep.
Castelmagno, alta valle Grana, province of Cuneo, Italy--photo: M. Plassio

In village houses, on farms, when the wife and children are listening, the story is less cruel, more humane. In taverns they don’t want witnesses; outsiders can’t understand; they can’t believe. Hardly any of them have ever read a book on the war. They don’t curse. They don’t hide the truth; only victory is embellished. They say terrible things, shocking things, with the simplicity of someone who is reencountering the past intact. They are ingenuous, resigned, today as much as then.

The war in Ethiopia, the Western Front, and the campaign in Greece are engraved in their memories. But when they relive the retreat from Russia, when they relive captivity in Russia, they go into a trance. Their faces go tense, their hands shake, madness resurfaces in their astonished gazes. It’s cruelty to urge them to tell their stories, to make them talk.

They talk about Albania, about Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Siberia, Mongolia. And then they may not even know where Russia is on the map. Some of the witnesses ask me who those civilians—the Jews—were who marked the long route of the troop trains heading toward the Eastern Front!

They don’t know the war against the Soviet Union was a total war. They don’t know that Hitler’s “new order” was our plan, that three million Soviet prisoners were killed or made to die of hunger and exhaustion, that millions of Russian civilians were deported to Germany. They don’t know that in the Soviet rear the population was starving to death; they don’t know that the lunacy of Hitler and Mussolini cost twenty million Russians their lives, that six million Jews died in the gas chambers, in the ovens, in the Nazi death camps.

September 8 doesn’t belong to their past; they are mutilated. Not having seen “Badoglio’s mess,” they can’t believe it; not bearing the marks of that anguish, they can’t understand; not having chosen then, they didn’t choose later.

Our struggle for liberation—a war of volunteers, of the people, of rebels—is incomprehensible to the survivors of captivity: they consider it an insignificant chapter of the war. In Cuneo and the valleys quite a few families lost one son in Russia and another in the partisan war. But the partisans, in the talk of the former prisoners, are the phony heroes of an easy war, of a phony war, phony because it was fought at home.

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